Our relationship with Power.
During a recent chat with one of her peers, Amy Cuddy explained that the biggest misunderstanding about her work stems from the fact that many people immediately associate power with winning — which typically leads to an alpha mindset and seeking dominance over others. So she offered an important distinction: “what we really should be doing is managing the impression that we’re making on ourselves, not so much the impression we’re making on others.”
As a social psychologist, Cuddy has studied the origins and outcomes of how people judge and influence each other. One of the main points that she has been tirelessly trying to convey is that body postures affect hormone levels, moods and feelings, which in turn have a direct impact on how we conduct ourselves in the world.
In a culture that tends to favor a mind-over-body narrative, this may have come as a revelation. Her Ted talk ranks second among the most-viewed TED talks, and she has continued to popularize the concept of power posing while touring her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. And yes, it’s fairly easy to see how her message can be misinterpreted sometimes. That’s why she is putting a lot of emphasis on highlighting the value of the outward practice of power posing as a way to project one’s authentic self. “It’s not about power over other people”, she clarifies, “it’s about power over your own access to the resources you possess. When we feel confident enough to show people who we are, it allows us to hear other people, and they feel liberated to show us who they are.”
Power has been part of life on earth from the very beginning and we’ve cultivated an intricate relationship with it since ancient civilizations. The subject continues to be studied in academic and corporate circles, and we still learn new aspects of it every year. Understandably, it is common for people to have a partial or distorted understanding of power, starting with the fact that there are multiple ways to define what it means.
One very straightforward definition of power is having our intentions realized in the world. So it stands to reason that in order to bring about the desired outcomes, we have to become powerful. At the same time, those moments when our best-laid plans fail reveal how powerful we truly are. This can be quite paradoxical because once we are deprived of what we thought was our source of power, we have to source it from somewhere else. But where?
There are essentially two dimensions of power. The first one relies on applying force, exerting control over others, or feeling in control of a situation. We tend to feel powerful when nothing stands in our way, and when things actually go our way. In this dimension, our power emerges from the absence of obstacles, or conflicts. We may become so attached — even addicted — to this form of power that, as soon as conflict arises, our instinctive reaction is to attempt to neutralize the perceived threat.
While this reactive approach can come in handy sometimes, it seems to also have a tendency to morph into our default mechanism when orienting ourselves across a variety of situations. This can limit our resourcefulness in the long-run and even cause us to lose sight of the outcomes we originally intended to accomplish.
Consider Superman, an iconic power symbol. Nowadays, the word “kryptonite” has permeated our language so much that it is universally understood as a term describing a person’s fundamental weakness. What’s noteworthy here is that, although kryptonite can have a crippling effect on Superman, it is not the absence of kryptonite that activates his superpowers. Of course, when kryptonite is present, his sole focus has to be getting away from it. However, this is only an occasional defensive move. Kryptonite avoidance is not his on-going strategy. Rather, he draws power from his ability to absorb and metabolize solar energy.
The second (and deeper) dimension of power is one that enables us to stay with the reality of our experience without collapsing, self-recriminating or lashing out. We become powerful when we are present, centered, patient, resilient and open. This kind of power is self-generating; it produces energy instead of consuming it. It enables us to move more freely and constantly find the inspiration to create, rather than control.
In the world of professional sports, for instance, victory is often defined by very slim margins, and athletes tend to be deeply aware of how their willingness to consistently get up after every stumble can make all the difference in the end. Those who are able to truly master this kind of power become more than just winners. They become great champions.
Most of us would love to be bullet-proof and not let anything deter us from pursuing our plans. But life doesn’t really turn out like that, does it? Not even Superman gets a free pass, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story.
The more we aspire to being invincible, the more we ignore the fact that being truly effective comes from accessing our vast array of responses to meet life as it unfolds.
Ironically, when we seek power to defend our assumptions, all we’re doing is trying to control things around us. We’re protecting what we believe to be our identity and avoiding perspectives that others bring. In order to really access our deeper power, we need to be willing to surrender to it, just like Superman surrenders to the sun. And this means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. People tend to think that vulnerability is just a feeling or a momentary willingness to open up. They’ll say, “ok, I’m vulnerable now; can we get on with it?” It is often perceived as a sign of weakness, thus something to be avoided. But vulnerability is actually one of the greatest sources of power which we all have. It is an incubator for creativity, not only because it allows some space for us to see things in a new light but also because it opens the door for us to be better listeners.
This is why vulnerability becomes beneficial when it is actively practiced. One way to practice it is appreciating the distinction between discussion and dialogue. In a discussion, the sustained emphasis is on having one’s views accepted by others. By contrast, the purpose of dialogue is to go beyond one individual’s views and gain insights that could not be achieved individually, ultimately producing a common understanding.
Power means many different things to different people. For some, power is seen as corrupt and may be of no interest at all. For others, power is their holy grail. We are usually trained to associate power with the superhero, the sports champion, the president of a nation or the billionaire CEO. But what about Michelangelo, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Earhart, Mozart, Einstein, Diana, Winfrey or Disney? What about the regular housewife, carpenter, professor, architect, moviemaker, web designer? What is their source of power and how do they access it?
Our greatest source of power is within ourselves, it is the power of choice.
Who will you choose to be?